From November of 2007 until September of 2009 I had the distinct pleasure of being a resident and night life mainstay in Gwangju, South Korea. What had first appeared to me as an intimidating and grey place full of ill mannered ajummas and ajoshis ended up feeling more like home to me than any place I’d lived in Australia after leaving home. I spent my first two or three months there not actively engaged in the foreigner community – instead preferring to stick by Liz, Kirk, Joy, Brodie, Vanessa, and Kirk (affectionately known as the Cheomdan crew). Those days were a lot of fun, but I didn’t really feel at home in Korea until I immersed myself more fully in the wonderful foreigner community there.
When I first struck upon the idea of returning to Korea, I immediately began to remember with fondness my time in Gwangju: boozy nights spent singing along to Counting Crows in the Speakeasy, super unhealthy cheese toasties from the chicken lady at 4am, and suiting up with the Three Amigos in early 2009… I like to think I did more of my growing up in Gwangju than I did in the years I spent in high school and college. It was there that I shrugged off my introverted personality and discovered my inner extrovert, and there that I met so many people who have shaped who I am and where I want to be in life.
So, the original plan had been to head back to Gwangju and rekindle my love affair with the city. That wasn’t to be, but the mayor elect of Gwangju’s foreigner community approached me about writing a piece on why I wanted to come back to Gwangju – and I’m only too happy to answer his request.
So, as I adventure in New Zealand and prepare for next month’s return to Korea in a different city – here are my Top 10 reqasons why I loved and still love Gwangju.
#10 – The Lesser Known Foreigner Haunts
I’ve touched on my favorite Gwangju bars in a past top ten, but the Gwangju night life isn’t limited strictly to Mike & Dave’s Speakeasy and the German Bar – and it was this alternate haunts that ensured that a night out didn’t always act as a carbon copy of the one before it. While Abey was always my favorite hookah venue in Gwangju, in more recent years the very chill Ethnic Bar has moved higher in my regard. With a candle-lit pond at its centre and private cushion filled rooms for reclining and relaxing, it’s a nice change of pace from more crowded night spots.
There’s the musical delights of Crazy Horse where semi regular live gigs draw the community together in support of local talent, and I know I’m quite looking forward to finally hearing local legends, Feed the Boats live. Then there’s Joe Wabe’s Mexican themed Tequilaz, the ever popular Houze night club, the well kept secret of Soul Train, and the fruit soju of Fish & Grill that ensured my final nights in Gwangju were always off to a good start.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few. A year is a long time in terms of a city’s night life, but Im looking forward to heading back and experiencing new places in 2011.
#9 – Delicious Indian Food
Gwangju has some delicious kimchi and a lot of great local cuisine, but after a few months of it – you tend to hunger for anything not from the peninsula. You can always find a decent burger or steak at Outback Steakhouse or TGI:F, but I developed a real fondness for the Indian food available at Gwangju’s two Indian restaurants. You’ll hear fierce debate over whether Thali or First Nepal is the better, but I’d always appreciated the hands on customer service at the smaller Thali.
Indian food isn’t exclusive to Gwangju of course. Busan has the fabulous (but pricey) Ganga and Seoul has a veritable horde of options when it comes to international cusiine. There’s even two Australian restaurants dealing in meat pies and vegemite sandwiches!
In Gwangju though, where foreign fare is considerably more limited, I came to love the occasional night out for a different kind of spicy dish. You can find Thali and First Nepal both within walking distance of one another, and both offer a good menu and some friendly staff.
#8 – Beautiful Surrounds
Gwangju is a sizable city, especially by the Australian standards I am used to, but it’s not without its natural beauty. The stunning Meudangsan National Park offers beautiful views of the city and some fantastic hiking, and there’s smaller but no less beautiful mountains scattered around the city to explore. I still have fond memories of a red wine fueled midnight hike up a mountain in my old neighborhood of Pungam-dong and the serenity that could be found just a few hundred metres from car choked streets and bustling sidewalks.
Korea is a built up nation but it does maintain its green reputation, and regardless of where in the city you are, you’re likely to find a quiet park to escape to. And if you fancy a little more isolation – the city is not so far from the beautiful temples of Unjusa and Daewonsa, the towering hike up Wolchusan, and the famous green tea fields and bamboo forest. No shortage of hikes, photo opportunities, and cultural experiences to be had.
#7 – Cheap Taxis
It might have changed in the year since I left, but I used to love the fact I could get from one side of Gwangju to the other for little more than 10,000 won (around $10). In my first year I lived in a relatively isolated corner of the country, but 8000 won and a twenty five minute cab ride would have me in the heart of the city and ready for a night of beer fueled mayhem. It also meant that regardless of where your wanderings would take you – chances were you could hail a cab, give them your address, and be sure you can get home with the change in your pocket.
It’s a welcome change from the $50 cab rides you’ll often find here in Sydney, and you’re actually more likely to have a conversation with a cab driver in Korea than you seem to be here. I’ve had some thoroughly entertaining chats in broken English and limited Korean with particularly chatty drivers.
#6 – Beach Trips
This kind of goes hand in hand with #8, but it really does warrant a spot of its own. I’ve spoken of a rainy weekend spent on Bigeumdo in a previous entry, but it wasn’t my only beach trip from Gwangju. Every summer there seems to be weekly trips out to one of Mokpo’s islands or a nearby beach. Whether they’re a weekend long camping trip or a hit and run on some isolated stretch of sand and murky water masquerading as a beach – it’s never a bad thing to get out from amongst the concrete towers and stretch out and enjoy a little peace and quiet. It’s something you don’t hear a lot of in Korea.
Gwangju itself isn’t a beach town, but it’s serviced by a damned impressive bus terminal (see below) that runs services all over the country. You’re never too far from a bit of sun, sand, and meager surf.
#5 – The Underground Grocer
Residents of Seoul or Busan might be spoiled with a larger selection of foreign grocers, but Gwangju has just the one – run by Michael Simning and his dedicated crew of volunteers. Whether you’re after a turkey for Thanksgiving, a hard to find soda or spice, or just a few comforts from home – you’re likely to find it (and a good yarn with whoever is on duty) at the Underground Grocer. Located conveniently downtown by Migliore (which all cab drivers will know), the Underground Grocer is likely to be your best friend when the homsickness sets in and you’d kill for a pop tart or a can of root beer.
#4 – Gwangju Foreigner Day
Once a year every year the foreigner community in Gwangju gets together to celebrate the diversity in the region. Too often the term ‘foreigner community’ is used to refer specifically to Westerners, and it’s easy to forget that the area has a host of other nationalities represented. There’s a great carnival atmosphere as you arrive at the university and take in the sights, sounds, and smells. The food court offers up everything from hot dogs to Mexican burritos to Malaysian noodles to African cuisine – and there’s plenty of art to browse and used goods to be bought at the swap meet.
I’ve only had the pleasure of going to the 2008 edition, and I spent most of that mooning over a soon to be girl Friday, but I do remember having a great time. Sitting back in the Spring sun and drinking ice cold beers; listening to great live music in the talent show; and going back for seconds and thirds at different food venues. It’s a great chance to network with people who you might not have otherwise met, and a nice way to get out and see people in the light of day.
#3 – The Bus Terminal
I’ve heard it said that Gwangju’s Bus Terminal used to be the biggest in the world, and I can certainly see how somebody might come to that conclusion. It’s more than just a place to catch a bus – with dozens of speciality stores and cafes to choose from as well as a massive cinema, a rooftop bar, and a great arcade where you can waste all of your spare coins trying to win a stuffed toy or cheap mp3 player.
There’s always a lot to do at the Bus Terminal, but I love it most because it basically links you directly with the rest of the country. Want to go to Mokpo? Done. Take a bus up to Seoul or to the airport? Done. Over to Busan for a weekend on the beach? Done! Some isolated village where you’ve heard they have a fascinating temple? Done. I’ve never found a place I couldn’t get to from the terminal, and ticket prices are far more affordable than you come to expect from years of over-paying in the Western world.
I don’t know how it ended up in Gwangju, because you’ll find yourself marveling at how shoddy the terminals in bigger cities are, but I’m eternally grateful that it’s there.
#2 – The Foreigner Bars
I won’t go into huge detail on this front – as I’ve given rave reviews to Soul Train, the German Bar, and the Speakeasy in my Top 10 bars post, but it would be remiss of me to list off reasons I loved Gwangju without mentioning the bar scene.
I think part of the reason everybody loves shows like Cheers and How I Met Your Mother is that they have the feeling of coming home. You see these characters you know and care about on a regular basis, and they’re just living life. And walking into Speakeasy or German Bar always felt a bit like that. You’d step in out of the chill air and almost immediately have people look over at you with awave or a smile. There’d be hugs and shouts of beer and seats cleared so you could join the fun.
It’s addictive, being a part of something. I’m sure it’s something you can find in any city – foreigner communities are small and tend to be tight knit as a result – but I’ll always associate that feeling with Gwangju’s night life. From making requests to the DJ at Speakeasy to singing some terrible noraebang with the owner of the German Bar – it was all good, all the time.
#1 – Community Spirit
Earlier this year Gwangju mainstay Michael Simning was diagnosed with leukemia and desperately needed donations of blood. The way the community rallied around the guy who was the first point of contact for so many Gwangju residents was just inspiring. It wasn’t just on the ground either. Facebook and Twitter were afire with people putting out the word to residents past and present, and the locals even organized a benefit concert to raise money for Michael and his family.
It’s not uncommon for locals to help out in other ways either. For as long as I can remember people have been volunteering at the Sungbin Girls Orphanage and helping out with bake sales and other fundraising initiatives. One of my favorite nights in Gwangju was the Love for Sale auction – in which eligible singles were auctioned off for a date and all money went to the orphanage. While I might have sold for a criminally low 50,000 won (to a friend, no less) others fetched upwards of 300,000 won with their offers of drunken lap dances, expensive dinners, or professional house cleaning.
Then there’s the regular social events. The farewells and weddings; the old theme nights at the German Bar; gigs at the Speakeasy or Crazy Horse; the epic Halloween and New Year’s parties; the Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners; the fantasy football competitions and dart battles; monthly foreigner dinners; the Gwangju News; the touch football days and chili cook-offs…. Fact is, there’s always something going on in Gwangju.
It’s exciting for me to be heading to a new city, but Gwangju is always going to hold a special place in my heart. As I said – it was the first place I ever felt truly at home after moving out of my childhood home. It might not have the beaches of Busan or the glamour of Seoul, but it’s got a lot of heart and soul. That counts for a hell of a lot.